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Faultless and Blameless

September 2, 2011

Arabella’s going through a lovely stage.  ‘Take me to a psychologist’, she screamed, ‘I’ve got issues’.  She didn’t need to add, ‘I’ve got

Guacamole

issues’ because they were glaringly obvious.  So having just made the final payment to the orthodontist for her million dollar (almost) smile, we are now giving equally sized payments to a man who is supposedly one of Sydney’s leading child psychologists.

Truthfully speaking, I couldn’t wait to get there.  I was looking forward to airing all of my grievances and expected to be able to reach for a box of tissues, have a gentle hand placed on my shoulder with an utter of a comforting ‘there, there’ and then an encouraging ‘well done’ on how I’d managed to hold it all together while bringing a very difficult daughter through her teenage years.

Ahhhh, wrong!

Arabella went in first while I had to stay outside the closed door and sit in a chair facing a TV that was deliberately left on at full volume so I couldn’t have a chance of eavesdropping.  She emerged an hour later looking all smug and I couldn’t wait for my turn to tell him how it really is and receive the tonne of sympathy I was eagerly expecting.

So I sat in his office and started to tell him about all the horror days I’d endured and how strong willed she is and how trying and the toll her behaviour is having on the family etc but before I’d even warmed up he cut in with a few sweeping observations and assessments.

‘You talk in statements’, he stated.

Statements?  Is that a problem?  I had no idea what he was talking about but didn’t want to appear unwise so just nodded like I found him to be very astute.

‘And you roll your eyes a lot’, he continued.

And I noticed there was no box of tissues.  And that he was too far away to place a comforting hand on my shoulder.  And with his gruff and gravelly voice I was not going to hear a gentle, ‘there there’.

‘And you have been very inconsistent with your parenting.  Your husband is too harsh and you’re too weak so it’s no wonder she’s behaving the way she is.  The boundaries for her are totally confused.’

It was not going well.  And on top of hurling insults he was expecting me to pay him.

Trying to change the subject I said, ‘Well I’m pleased she’s about to turn 17.  I’ve heard when teenage girls turn 17 they come good’.

‘Well not necessarily’, he replied with a tone like he was correcting an ignorant fool.

When I was growing up parents were assumed faultless and blameless; children were the problem.  Now I’ve grown up and am a parent myself, children are faultless and blameless and parents are the problem.

We left there with Arabella driving me home.  She couldn’t get the grin off her face.  ‘I like him mum, he’s really nice.  He said I can come and see him whenever I like so I’ve made an appointment for next week.’

I rolled my eyes and stated, ‘Whatever makes you happy’.

And now for a snack:

Guacamole

Serves 6

Cost:  Affordable right now as avocados are in season

Degree of Difficulty:  1/5

Flesh of 3 avocados

Juice of 2 limes

3 vine-ripened tomatoes, seeds removed, chopped

1 small red onion finely chopped

1 green chilli, seeds removed, finely chopped

1 garlic clove, crushed

A small handful of chopped coriander

Place avocados in a bowl with the lime juice and mash to desired consistency.  Gently fold in remaining ingredients.

Make as close to serving time as possible.

Serve with organic corn chips.

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The Gap Year Crosses the Atlantic

August 18, 2011

Americans have no appreciation for the beautiful tones of a didgeridoo.  In the heat of a New York summer Archie went out into the

Eggs Benedict

streets with his quality instrument and demonstrated his skills of circular breathing combined with a full menagerie of animal sound effects.  He blasted into that didge until his lips blew up like a puffer fish and he nearly collapsed from a lack of oxygen and a build up of CO2.  For all his efforts he managed hundreds of curious stares but just 30 cents into the kitty the next stage of his gap year.

Perhaps it was his appearance the New Yorkers didn’t like.  Having recently seen him on skype, I can understand that.  An old school mate, Felix, had earlier made plans to visit Archie in New York.  On the day he announced to Archie that his flights were booked, the two of them came up with an idea that they thought was humorous.  They wouldn’t shave between then and the day Felix arrived.  The one with the longest beard would be deemed the winner, (there was no prize – that was irrelevant).  I didn’t question the plan as I knew there wouldn’t be a sensible answer.

Crispy bacon on top of baby English spinach

So Felix arrived and settled into Archie’s Brooklyn accommodation and there were many laughs between them about the new looks they were sporting.  But there was no suggestion that the game had now been played out and perhaps it was time to move on and reach for a razor.  The game is just continuing on with no finality.

‘Since I’ve had this beard, mum, I haven’t been asked for ID once’, said an exuberant Archie.  And he certainly put that to the test.  On their last night in New York Archie packed up all his possessions (and borrowed possessions including cooking instruments, crockery, utensils, bedding, towels etc) and the two of them got onto the subway and took the train to his auntie’s apartment in the West Village.

Sally said they arrived looking like packhorses and she has no idea how they managed all that gear between them.  Both of them were as scruffy as each other – not a hair cut between them since leaving school and now scraggy facial hair to complete the look.

Sally and Mike are quite relaxed so didn’t let it bother them.  They took them out to Kingswood for a farewell dinner.   With the facial hair making Archie look every bit the legal drinking age, he confidently shouted a round of drinks.

After dinner Sally and Mike took them to Maria’s Crisis Bar.  Archie said it’s the best bar he’s ever been to and there’s been a few.  So good was it there, that they didn’t even make it to their other farewell party in Brooklyn.  They just stayed in that bar with their new-found mates – show singers and theatre people, and belted out songs from musical theatre.  Archie apparently sang many from Oklahoma.  That’s when Sally and Mike got up and left.

Archie and Felix pulled an all-nighter and stumbled into Sally’s apartment sometime in the mid-morning.  Looking worse for wear

Poached eggs on top of the muffins

she sat them down and made them Eggs Benedict for brunch.  It’s the best breakfast to have after a big night – ever. Archie and Felix said their goodbyes, then went to JFK and boarded a Virgin Atlantic flight for Heathrow.  With good fortune ever present, the gappies are now residing in Chelsea.

Eggs Benedict

Serves 4

Cost:  an expensive version of ‘bacon and eggs’

Degree of Difficulty:  5/5 – because of the timing of all the elements – lots of multi-tasking involved

Ingredients:

1/2 cup tarragon vinegar

3 shallots finely chopped

10 black peppercorns

1 bay leaf

4 organic egg yolks

250gms melted and cooled butter

Spooning over Bernaise Sauce

4 English Muffins, split in half, toasted then buttered

Baby English Spinach leaves

8 rindless bacon rashers

1 tbspn white vinegar

8 organic eggs

1 bunch of chives finely chopped

Cracked black pepper to serve

To make the Bernaise Sauce:

In a small saucepan over medium heat, bring to boil the tarragon vinegar, shallots, peppercorns and bay leaf.  Simmer uncovered until reduced by half.  Strain and set reserved liquid aside.

Place egg yolks in a double boiler over barely simmering water and whisk to combine.  Add 2 tbspns reserved liquid and stir until combined.  While constantly whisking, add butter in a slow stream until sauce is thickened and combined.  If sauce splits, place 2 tbspns boiling water in a bowl and gradually whisk in split sauce.  It will recover!

Meanwhile…Bacon:

Cook bacon in a frying pan over medium heat – we like it crispy.  Drain on paper towel.

Meanwhile…Poach Eggs:

Bring a frying pan of water to a slow simmer.  Add 1 tbspn white vinegar.  Bring water to a swirl by stirring with a wooden spoon.  When slowly simmering, add eggs.  Cook for 2 minutes then remove with a slotted spoon.  Drain as much water from eggs as possible.

To Assemble:

Eggs Benedict!

Place 2 muffin halves on each of the 4 heated plates.  Top with baby English spinach leaves.  Place bacon on top of leaves.  Carefully place poached eggs on top of bacon.  Spoon Bernaise Sauce on top of eggs.  Sprinkle chives on top.  Grind pepper on top of dish.

The Gathering

August 4, 2011

Archie’s making an impression over in New York.  He has his own accommodation but it’s ‘student-digs’ so fortunately for him he

Chicken Parmigiana

has an auntie with an apartment in the West Village.

His Auntie has a toddler and is therefore inexperienced when it comes to teenagers so is naive and foolishly trusting.  She let it slip that she was heading Up State for a few days for 4th of July celebrations.

Ever so quickly Archie lept to tell her how special it would be for him to enjoy the 4th of July fireworks from her rooftop garden and that he would be able to ‘help her’ as could ‘look after’ the apartment while she was away.  ‘I could keep an eye on the place for you’ were his words.  Teenagers are good like that.  ‘And do you think I could have a gathering?’ he continued.

Aunties with experience only with toddlers do not understand ‘the gathering’.

For the uninitiated a gathering is code for loud music, excessive alcohol and five times as many guests as you promised.

His auntie isn’t too naive.  She did say that roof top parties were banned in her building but he could have ‘a few’ mates over for ‘one or two’ drinks and she did ask what he was doing about the catering.  Alarm bells should have gone off when he replied that it was all under control because everyone was bringing different kinds of shots.  Confused she said, ‘no, I meant what are you doing about food?’ and ever so confidently Archie replied that one person was bringing corn chips.  She handed him the keys and said he would have to be out by Monday night as she was arriving back first thing Tuesday morning to let the cleaner in.

‘Not a problem’ replied Archie.

Somehow Archie managed to get about 15 newly acquired mates loaded with shots past the doorman.  The fireworks were spectacular but nobody can remember them.

First thing Tuesday morning the auntie with toddler and cleaner in tow put the key into the door and stepped into the apartment.  She’d never seen anything like it.  Pizza boxes (all empty) scattered around the normally pristine home, kitchen benches groaning under the weight of ’empties’, a freezer filled with exploded bottles of alcohol and Archie asleep in her bed with all his dirty washing strewn from one end of the room to the other.

She had to physically shake him to wake him from what can only be described as one of those teenage comas.  Totally dazed he gradually came to and asked, ‘why are you back a day early?’  But his auntie said, ‘remember I told you three times I would be back first thing Tuesday morning?’  And as if things weren’t bad enough, Archie asked, ‘Is it Tuesday?’  She said, ‘I need you to get out of bed and pack your things as I’ve got work to do and the baby needs a sleep.’  Archie managed to pull himself from the bed while his auntie took an armful of empties to the recycling bin.

She thought she had given Archie adequate instructions and a loud enough signal to ‘move on’ but she came back into the apartment and there he was on her couch strumming his guitar.

Later that night she was on the skype to me.  I gave her my condolences but told her sadly, this is not an isolated incident.  ‘What you came home to is what many mothers of teenagers face for about five years.  Apparently it’s to do with the frontal lobe.  It doesn’t fully develop until they are 22 and so prior to that day of relief they have impaired decision making’.

Only four years to go.

I did get on the skype to Archie and I did fully intend to berate him for his abuse of the West Village apartment it’s just that he got in first by telling me how he’s changed his mind about going to Uni in 2012 and instead wants to save up for a motorbike and ride around Australia.  ‘Wouldn’t that be great Mum’, he stated.  So my attention was diverted elsewhere.  He also let me know that on the day of his return to Australia he won’t be needing a family dinner because he’s off to the pub ‘with the boys for a chicken parmigana’.

So exploding bottles of booze oozing from my sister’s freezer paled into insignificance as I realised with horror that I haven’t been missed.

Archie…if you stay home for dinner I’ll cook you and the boys Chicken Parmigiana.

Chicken Parmigiana

Serves 4

Degree of Difficulty:  3/5

Cost:  Depends how many ‘boys’ turn up for dinner

1 tbspn extra virgin olive oil + 1/4 cup for frying

1 small onion finely chopped

2 cloves of crushed garlic

400gm tin of tomatoes (I used tinned cherry tomatoes)

1 tbspn brown sugar

small handful of torn basil leaves

4 free-range chicken breasts

plain flour

2 lightly beaten eggs

1 tbspn milk

1 cup breadcrumbs

60gms butter

1 cup grated mozzarella cheese

1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

For the sauce:

Heat a saucepan over medium heat, add 1 tbspn olive oil.  Add onion and cook gently until softened.  Add garlic and stir for 1 more minute.  Add tomates, brown sugar and basil.  Simmer for 20 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.  Set aside.

For the Chicken:

Heat oven to 200°C

Gently pound chicken breasts between two sheets of glad wrap until an even thickness.  Coat lightly in plain flour and shake off excess.  Combine beaten egg and milk and dip breasts into egg wash then coat in breadcrumbs.

Heat frying pan over medium heat.  Add olive oil and butter.  Add chicken breasts and cook for 3 minutes on each side.  You may need to cook in batches.  Remove chicken when cooked and drain on paper towels.

Place on an oven tray lined with baking paper.  Top with tomato sauce.  Combine cheeses and spread over the top of the chicken.  Place in the oven for 15 minutes or until cheese is completely melted.

Serve with mashed potato and salad.

Home cooking is better than pub food!


The Waiting Room

July 28, 2011

You know how it is when you have to see one of those specialists you’d rather avoid and you just hope when you sit in the reception

Charlie's Chilli Chicken

area that no is there who recognises you.  You don’t want the world to know that you’re seeing a specialist who will be taking a good look at you – not your face but your other end.

I arrived a few minutes late and hoped to be shown straight into his rooms to get the whole thing over with but was told to take a seat.  I looked around but there were no magazines.  Everyone likes a magazine so you can keep your head down and avoid making eye contact.  Should have brought my own.

After staring at the walls for nearly an hour an elderly woman shuffled in supported by a younger man who was probably her middle-aged son.  I nearly groaned audibly.  What were the odds?  This is a city of more than four million.  It should be possible to get through a few appointments without bumping into people on your Christmas card list.  I know that supportive son.  It’s Mike.  His son, Lachlan, played rugby with Archie.

And I had no magazine to bury my head in.  Alas, he saw me and as his mother had taken the seat one up from me, he squeezed into the chair between us.

‘Oh Charlie, what are you doing here?’

It’s obvious isn’t it?  ‘I’m just waiting to see the doctor.’

‘Oh, the one called Don?

‘Yes.’

‘My mum’s seeing him.  What time’s your appointment?’ he asked in his usual gruff tone.

‘Mine was 2.45 but I’ve been waiting for nearly an hour.’

He rolled his eyes.  ‘Oh mum, did you hear that?  He’s running over an hour late’, and he turned to me and said, ‘Charlie, this is my mother, Brenda.  Brenda, this is Charlie.’  I leaned forward.  ‘Nice to meet you Brenda’.  But I was dying on the inside.  I just wanted to get through the afternoon quietly and privately.

Brenda leaned forward and asked in a very loud scratchy voice, ‘Are you waiting to see the doctor?’

What else would I be doing here?  But I affirmed that I was most pleasantly.  Where’s that magazine or a local paper or even a brochure on block-out shutters.  Anything.

‘Well don’t be too long because I’m next’.

‘I’ll do my best’.

Mike piped up.  ‘What’s Archie doing?’

‘Nothing.  He’s taking a year off.  A gap year he’s calling it’.

‘Lachlan’s doing nothing.  Nothing.  Got the HSC this year.  Hasn’t done a scrap of work in the last five years so I keep telling him, ‘you’d better pull your finger out.’  That’s not a good turn of phrase in this surgery.  But he continued, ‘Is Archie driving?’

‘Yes, he’s got his licence’.

‘Has he crashed the car yet?’

‘No, not yet’.

‘Lochie has.  Crashed the car in the first week he had his licence.  Drove the car straight into a pole.  Is Archie smoking?’

‘He has the occasional cigarette but he’s got asthma so…’

‘Drinking?’

‘Yes, loves a drink’.

‘Lochie’s drinking and smoking.  Never stops.  That’s all he does.  Smokes and drinks and plays rugby and sees his girlfriend.  Nothing else.  He’s off to Fiji next week with the 1st and 2nd XV.  He’s obsessed with rugby.’

‘What does he want to do when he leaves school?’

‘Wants to be a physio.  Not the indoor kind though.  Like a sports physio where you travel with a team of rugby players.  He’s obsessed with rugby.  And not the indoor type.  Likes to be outside.  But I’ve told him, ‘you’d better pull your finger out if you want to be a physio.’  Then he looks at me curiously.  ‘So everything’s okay with you?’

‘Fine thanks.’  And then in an effort to deflect the conversation from myself,  ‘Do you still own the bottle shops?’

‘No, sold them’.

‘Oh, so what are you doing now?’

‘Nothing.’

‘That must be nice.’  But I’m thinking, ‘like father, like son’.

Finally my name was called.  ‘Lovely to meet you Brenda and good seeing you Mike’, I politely say as I’m led away by a slow-walking, obese receptionist.

Some days in some instances it’s great to bump into friends and acquaintances.  Other times it’s just plain awkward.  Thank goodness today’s focus was turned from me to those with a bad case of teenage-itis.  How grateful I am that Lochie is doing nothing except drinking, smoking, seeing his girlfriend and playing rugby.  These attributes make for great conversation fillers in awkward moments.

A hot fiery meal is what’s needed to get over the day’s events.

CHARLIE’S CHILLI CHICKEN

Plated up, Charlie's Chilli Chicken

I make this quite often, so often, a friend of mine and her children know it as ‘Charlie’s Chilli Chicken’.  It’s a great mid-week meal that you can whip up in no time.

Degree of difficulty:  2/5

Serves:  4

Cost:  Inexpensive

2 tbspns vegetable oil

6 dried red chillies

6 cloves of garlic finely chopped

1 red onion finely chopped

500g chicken thigh fillets, cut into stir-frying strips

1 tbspn sambal oelek

1 tbspn ketjup manis

1 tbspn soy sauce

1 tbspn palm sugar

1/2 cup roasted unsalted cashews

6 shallots cut into batons

coriander sprigs to garnish

Place the oil in a wok and heat to medium.  Add the chillies and fry briefly until they start to darken.  Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Raise the heat to high.  Add the garlic, onion and chicken and stir constantly for about 2 minutes.  Then add the sambal oelek, ketjup manis, soy sauce and palm sugar.  (Add a little stock or water if mixture looks too dry).

Stir-fry for a few more minutes until chicken is cooked through.  Add cashews, shallots and fried chillies.

Transfer to a serving plate and garnish with coriander sprigs.

Serve with steamed Jasmine rice.

A ‘Nostalgia Issue’

June 23, 2011

My mother’s friend’s son’s wife (confused?) thinks there’s nothing better to do during the school holidays than pack up the people-

Crunchy Coconut Slice

mover, throw in four young children and drive from Melbourne to Cairns – and then a few days later, back again.  That’s about 7,000kms all up equating to around 70-100 hours on the road.  She wants to do this because when growing up, her family went on road trips.  She has a ‘nostalgia issue’.

As the school holidays are rapidly approaching and as in Australia, most of our airports are currently closed due to ash from a Chilean volcano, I’ve been wondering how many of us might end up being forced to take on a ‘nostalgia’ style of vacation.

I’ll say it right here, right now, not all families are cut out for road trips and there should be no sense of failure in your family unit if you believe your family would not survive this kind of an experience.  In our family we UNDERSTAND we are not suited to the road trip style of holiday.

But sometimes we forget.

Recently forgetting again, we put the pod on the roof and drove from Sydney to Gunnedah.  ‘You’ll do it in around five hours’, enthused our hosts.  But no, we didn’t.  We managed to turn the trip into a seven and a half hour ordeal arriving in the pitch of blackness to a meal that had been in the slow cooker for so long it had practically disintegrated.

In case you’re wondering how journeys can end up taking so much longer than necessary, it’s all to do with STOPPING.  Here’s my Sydney-to-Gunnedah list of STOPS:

1.              Alfie (6 yrs) climbed into the car while it was still being packed and started to watch a movie on his portable DVD player that was powered by the car’s battery.  It’s just it took so much longer to pack the car and lock the house and scream at slothful, idle and unhelpful teenagers than anticipated.  By the time we were all seatbelted in, Carl went to turn on the car and voila, flat battery.  We all piled out of the car and had to sweet-talk the workers on a construction site nearby for a loan of some jumper leads and a bit of a hand.

2.              Before even leaving our suburb, Arabella (16 yrs) remembers she’s left her I-pod charger at a friend’s house and she just has to have it because she won’t be able to survive a few days away without her awful selection of music.

3.              Archie (18 yrs), who’d only done one thing to help the entire morning and that was to pack his guitar into the pod, informs us one of the strings on the guitar is broken and could we just stop by Turramurra Music, ‘because it’s so close to the F3 anyway’, (the gateway for all road trips heading north) and he’d ‘quickly’ run in and pick up a new set of strings.

4.              Somewhere just before Newcastle on an isolated stretch of freeway Alfie says he needs to do a wee.  We have to pull over to the side of the road and let him go on the grass verge while trucks fly past nearly knocking us from our feet.

5.              Fast food stop for by now, a very late lunch.  Over the ‘meal’ everyone’s at each other’s throats about whose fault it is we’re running so late, how small Big Macs are now compared with when we were growing up, who keeps kicking the back of whose seat, who won’t stop whistling, ‘it’s someone else’s turn to be allowed to play their music’, ‘mum, can I sit in the front because my legs are longer’ and ‘can I drive because I need to get my hours up’.  Dining out for some families can be right up there with a road trip.

6.              Archie let’s us all know he has a bad case of ‘scrot-rot’ also known as ‘jock-itch’ and we’ll have to buy him some cream because otherwise ‘by the time we get back there’ll be nothing left of my balls’.  Now I’m trying to navigate but also looking out for pharmacies open on public holidays plus tempers are flying about why did he let it get that bad before mentioning it and didn’t he see the pharmacy right next door to Turramurra Music.

7.              Now Arabella needs to go to the bathroom.  ‘Why didn’t you go at McDonalds?’ I scream.  But always ever-so-quick with a reply she retorts, ‘you know I can’t hold on mum, I’ve inherited your weak bladder.’  So we find a town with an information centre where Arabella can use the bathroom and she walks from the car in a casual stroll like it’s not glaringly obvious the sun is setting and we’re trying to avoid driving in the dark because that’s when you’re more likely to run over a kangaroo but not before it totals the front of your car.

8.              Carl notices we need more petrol and isn’t sure how much further we have to drive so ‘we’d better fill up now’.

9.              I’m now weary, stressed and tired.  I’m watching out for giant kangaroos that are going to dart out of the bushes at any moment so keenly that I miss the tiny sign that is barely illuminated on this dark, moonless night.  We drive in the wrong direction for 20 minutes before I realise then wonder how I’m going to break the news to Carl.  That was the final straw.

That was when we remembered we’re a family that doesn’t qualify for road trips.  It is not the bonding experience other families find it to be, it’s an exercise in restraining yourself and each other from a potential homicide.

Let us all pray that the volcanic ash moves on swiftly so we can all fly to our holiday destinations seated in separate sections of the plane, as required.

If you are feeling nostalgic, here’s a recipe of my mother’s called ‘Crunchy Coconut Slice’.  She used to make this for my sisters and me almost weekly and it was plated up for our afternoon tea – she was not a believer in store-bought biscuits!  Perhaps your children could make this simple but delicious recipe over the holidays.

Crunchy Coconut Slice:

Degree of Difficulty:  1/5

Makes:  24 squares

Cost:  Very inexpensive and the ingredients are what you would find in most pantries.

1 cup self raising flour

3/4 cup plain flour

1 cup coconut

1 cup raw sugar

1 cup rolled oats

125g butter

3 tbspns golden syrup

Preheat oven to 150°C.

Grease a 20x30cm slice tin.

In a large bowl combine the dry ingredients and mix well. 

In a small saucepan over low heat, melt the butter with the golden syrup.  Pour over the dry ingredients and mix well.  Pour into Crunchy Coconut Sliceslice tin, press down firmly.  Place in oven for 30 minutes or until lightly golden brown.  Cut into squares while still warm.  The slice will be crunchy and chewy but for a more jaw-breaking experience, leave in oven for an additional 5 minutes.  

One Hundred and Twenty Hours

June 17, 2011

Anyone with a teenager on L-Plates will know exactly what I’m talking about.  Barely had Archie made the transition from Ls to Ps when lining up behind him was Arabella, shiny new L-plates in hand.  As she walked in the door so proud that she had passed her test and could now learn to drive, she wanted an enthusiastic response, not the groan coming from the pit of my stomach.  The thought of another one hundred and twenty hours consumed me.

Indonesian Beef Rendang

There are only a few ways to short-circuit the system.

Firstly we sent Arabella to HART for an all day defensive driving course.  The idea being she would graduate a safer driver but a big part of my motivation was that the six hours of driving she would do, counts as 18 hours for her logbook!  Plus, she drove there and drove home so in one day we reduced 120 to 100.

Then I did a crosscheck with a friend of mine who has a business called the Awesome Driving School.  He told me Arabella can have up to 10 lessons with a qualified instructor and for every hour spent in a lesson the RTA will classify that as three hours.  So that’s another way of reducing that 120-hour hurdle by another 30 hours.

But that still leaves 70 hours.  70 Hours.  Seventy hours in the front passenger seat with an overly confident, nothing-can-go-wrong, I-know-what-I’m-doing, you’ve-told-me-that-before, this-people-mover’s-a-rice-burner, teenager.  And I’ve got a friend with triplets.

The first few hours with a new L-Plater behind the wheel are always the worst, even if they have graduated from HART.  It’s hard not to be so tense you’re grinding your teeth especially when their most keen interest once in the driver’s seat is to look for the auxiliary cord so they can plug in their I-pod and crank up the music (their selection only).

Then while you’re still grinding your teeth you find yourself leaning to the right as they drive with the left side of the car either in the gutter or on the kerb and you’re terrified you’re going to lose your left shoulder in the collision you’re visualizing with the next lamp post.

There’s a rule you need to slow down when approaching a roundabout but both Archie and Arabella shoot straight through and this is when you feel an oncoming migraine.  ‘What was that?’ I yell.

‘Don’t scream at me, mum, you’ll make me nervous’, she replies like my response cannot be justified.

‘You just went straight through, you didn’t even look’.

‘I did, there was nothing coming’.

‘You didn’t even turn your head’, I say, straining now to moderate my tone.

Ingredients for home made curry paste

And then there’s cornering.  It’s obvious to me that the road has a 90-degree turn to the left fast approaching. This apparently means nothing to Arabella.  ‘Slow down’, I try feeling knotted up muscles developing at the back of my neck.  No change in speed.  ‘Slow down’, I urge.  No change.  ‘Slow down’, I scream but too late.  We take the corner at full speed without a foot going near the break pedal and the rice-burner cornering on two wheels.

‘What was that?’ I yell with a pounding chest, ‘pull over’.

The car keeps moving.  ‘What is your problem, mum?  You’re very angry today; I should have gone driving with dad.  How can I learn when all you do is scream at me?’

You get home.  You have a pounding headache, your shoulder’s stiff from wrenching to the right so it wasn’t slammed up against a lamp-post, you’re neck muscles are now spasming and you’re system’s so pumped with adrenalin you’re tongue’s adhered to the roof of your mouth.  Now you have to fill out the logbook.  Date, time, registration, odometer readings, weather conditions, traffic levels, driver’s licence number and most importantly, length of time on the road – 25 minutes.  Subtract 25 minutes from 70 hours.  Just 69 hours, 35 minutes to go.  And they say the toddler years are tough.

I’ve been in the front passenger seat with Arabella behind the wheel for four hours this week.  I’m not going out tonight – no energy left.  I’m spending the night in front of a great DVD and I’m going to sit on the couch and enjoy this Indonesian curry.  I found the recipe in the June 2011 issue of Gourmet Traveler  – a perfect recipe for a cold winter’s night.

Beef Rendang

Long red chillies

Cost:  Beef oyster blade is inexpensive making this a tasty but economical meal.

Serves:  4

Degree of difficulty:  3/5

2 lemongrass stalks, white part only, finely chopped

6cm piece of ginger, grated

4cm piece of galangal, grated

13 long red chillies, coarsely chopped

1 onion, finely chopped

5 garlic cloves, finely chopped

35g desiccated coconut

1/3 cup vegetable oil

850g beef oyster blade, cut into 5cm cubes

500ml coconut milk

1 tsp caster sugar

Steamed rice to serve

(For extra heat you can add 3-4 birds eye chillies to the curry paste).

Process lemongrass, ginger and galangal in a food processor to form a fine paste.  Add chilli, onion and garlic and process to a coarse paste.

Dry-fry coconut in a frying pan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until golden (3-5mins), set aside.

Jasmine Rice

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat, add paste and stir-fry until aromatic (4-6 minutes).  Increase heat to high, add meat and stir-fry until meat browns (3-5 minutes).  Add reserved coconut and fry for 1 minute.  Add coconut milk, sugar and 500ml water and bring to the boil, stirring frequently to prevent the coconut milk splitting.  Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until meat is tender and coconut liquid begins to turn to oil (2-2 1/2 hours), then remove beef with a slotted spoon and set aside.

Cook sauce, stirring continuously (be careful as hot oil will spit) until almost dry (5-10 minutes).  Return beef to pan, stir gently, season to taste and serve with steamed rice.

A Country Sojourn

June 10, 2011

I have a beautiful friend who always starts her emails to me with ‘Dearest Charlie’.  The email I received from her during the week let me know she’d enjoyed a wonderful weekend on a property in Cootamundra.  ‘I always feel quite soul restored after a sojourn in the country’, she wrote and I couldn’t agree more.

A few weeks ago friends invited us to their property about an hour’s drive from Gunnadah.  We spent nearly a week on the Liverpool Plains and found there was little of life in the big smoke we missed.

Life in Sydney is so much more frazzled and frantic but I’m sure some of it we bring on ourselves.  Take entertaining for instance.  For me it is something I love to do – there’s no better way to get to know people or celebrate friendships than inviting special people into your home.  But there is a procedure I go through every time and it starts about a week before the event.

1.              Recipe research and this involves looking up sites like Taste on the internet.   It moves to the bookshelves where I start pulling Delicious, Donna Hay and Gourmet Traveller magazines off the shelves and try to remember which of the 200 magazines that were neatly stacked but are now all over the floor had that recipe for warmed blue cheese with walnuts and parsley (Delicious Magazine, May 2009, Page 33).

2.              Two days later the menu is decided but now I do a cross-check with the guests for food allergies, personal likes and

Archie and Arabella

dislikes, and a mental scan trying to make sure I’m not serving them the same menu I served the previous occasion.

3.              Then the house must be overhauled.  It starts with crawling from room to room gathering up everything off the floor that has just been dumped there and trying to figure out where it all belongs.  Now I can vacuum and wash the floors.  Then it’s onto attacking every horizontal surface because some in the family see these as a justifiable place to empty your pockets, dump your bags, shopping, school mascot, football boots etc.  Now the surfaces can be dusted and the table polished.  Then the bathrooms are cleaned, the path to the front door is cleared of dog poo, the windows are washed, the ironing basket hidden and all paperwork and unopened mail is thrown into a box and pushed under the bed and not remembered until the ATO starts ringing.

4.              Two days out from the casual get-together it’s off to the shops to spend, spend, spend and this includes new kitchen equipment because every recipe these days seems to have some new essential you absolutely can’t live or bake without like souffle dishes or parfait glasses.

Alfie and the lambs

5.              The night before is spent setting the table with ironed tablecloths and napkins, cutlery that matches, wine and water glasses, candles and flowers – and yelling death threats to Alfie if he dares to go near that table.

6.              The day ‘of’ is spent cooking and it doesn’t matter what’s on the menu, this will not finish until 10 minutes before the guests arrive leaving only enough time for a quick change of clothes and an application of lipstick to hopefully give that ‘fresh look’.

7.              You appreciate that all of your guests arrive at least 15 minutes late giving you time to replace all harsh lighting with candles, (essential for the 40+ to only be seen under flattering lighting and that means eating in the dark), light the fire, place a clean hand towel in the bathroom, remove the teenage undies from the bathroom floor, and remove the teenage iPod from the dock and replace with your own sane mix.

8.              And then the doorbell rings and it’s on with the show that you hope appears effortless but in reality has taken a week from your life and without downing a quick Berocca you’ll have no energy left to carry the plates to the table.

But how refreshing are things in the country!  On one of the days we were there our hosts were having 25 people for lunch.  I had noticed in the days leading up to this event that no one seemed stressed about this and that the first five points of my ‘entertaining system’ apparently did not matter at all.  An hour before the guests were to arrive my host turned to me and referring to the menu casually asked, ‘so what do you think we should have?’  I sat frozen to my chair.  How could she be so calm?  I started to panic for her about how the day was going to unravel.  There was less than an hour to go and I thought for sure I was now going to witness something akin to a Masterchef pressure test but there was no acceleration in her speed around the kitchen and no heightened levels of anxiety as the minutes ticked by.

She went to the fridge and said, ‘oh, there’s some steak here and sausages too and I may as well cook these chops’ so it was all brought out and put on the kitchen bench and I started to do a count of all the butchered items to make sure it did add up to at least 25.  Then with a sound of delight she said, ‘oh look, I’ve got some olives here to start off with and there’s a few cheeses we can have with these crackers and the kids can have chips.  I know I’ve got some somewhere’.

She told me they were going to eat outside but they didn’t have an outdoor table and certainly I couldn’t count 25 chairs so I had no idea where she thought everyone might sit down to eat but it didn’t worry her in the slightest.  And as for the BBQ that was going to cook this assortment of items, it had been knocked up by the farmer himself and was on a bit of a lean but what was the problem!

I helped her put a simple salad together of whatever we could find in the fridge.  We found some bread rolls in the freezer so I put them in a sunny spot for a hastened thaw.  I rummaged through the cutlery draw and tried to find 25 sets of matching knives and forks and wrapped the pairs in paper napkins.

The last two steps of my ‘essential entertaining handbook’ were also ignored and so the whole entertaining for 25 set-up that would have taken all of my focus for at least three weeks was put together in less than an hour.

And soon the guests were arriving and some of them being members of the CWA, arrived with bundt cakes and other sweet things to solve the dessert situation and others brought canapés and others interesting salads so somehow or other, I don’t know how, lunch for 25 went from looking like a mighty fall from a massive cliff to being one of the most relaxed and enjoyable sunny Saturdays I have ever experienced.

It was a refreshing lesson learned in that it’s the people who are the focus and not the ironed table cloth or the clean hand towel hanging in the bathroom.  As my friend said to me in her email, ‘I always feel quite soul restored after a sojourn in the country’.

I don’t have a property or even an orchard but I do have a cumquat tree and it would be a sin to watch all this fruit fall to the ground so here is a recipe using a fruit that perhaps also grows in some sunny section of your backyard.

Marinated Spatchcocks with Cumquat and Lemongrass Sauce

Cumquats

Serves 4-6

Degree of Difficulty:  3/5

Cost:  Medium

Marinade

4 spatchcocks

2 tbspns palm sugar

2 tbspns tumeric

1 long red chilli

2 tbspns fish sauce

2 tbspns lime juice

Sauce

6 stalks lemon grass

1/2 cup lime juice

Spatchcock halves marinating

1/4 cup coconut vinegar – available from Asian supermarkets or substitute with white wine vinegar

4 tbspns palm sugar

small handful kaffir lime leaves roughly torn

2 tbspns vegetable oil

4 golden shallots

2 tbspns grated ginger

1 1/2 cups thinly sliced cumquats, seeded

2 long red chillies, sliced thinly

Take spatchcocks and rinse under cold water then dry with paper towel.  Remove wing tips with a knife or scissors.  Cut along the breastbone then divide into 2 halves by cutting out the backbone (these bones can be frozen to make stock at a later date).  Trim spatchcock halves and place in a shallow dish.

Place palm sugar, tumeric and tumeric in a mortar and pestle and pound to a paste.  Add 1 tspn salt, fish sauce and lime juice and stir to combine.  Pour over chicken and leave to marinate overnight or for 2 hours.

Turn oven to 200°C.

Place baking paper on an ovenproof tray.  Put spatchcock halves on baking paper and pour marinade over.  Place in oven for 30 minutes (for room temperature spatchcocks).

Trim ends from lemon grass and cut into 6cm lengths.  Bruise lemongrass by bashing with a mallet.  Place in saucepan with lime juice, vinegar, palm sugar and lime leaves.  Bring to a boil and cook until sugar has dissolved.  Strain and allow to cool.

Heat a small frying pan over high heat with vegetable oil.  Add shallots and ginger.  Stir fry for 5 minutes.  Add cumquats and lemongrass syrup; simmer 1 minute.  Remove from heat.  Mix in chilli.

When spatchcock are cooked, remove from oven, plate up and add sauce, some Jasmine rice and serve with some steamed Asian vegetables.